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Featuring guest Milmer Martinez Vergara

Milmer Martinez Vergara | Our Invisible Community

When science can come alongside the needs of the people, communities can find solutions that allow both people and the environment to flourish.


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When science can come alongside the needs of the people, communities can find solutions that allow both people and the environment to flourish.

Description

Milmer Martinez Vergara grew up in Colombia and never saw a distinction between science, care for the environment and the faith that was instilled from a young age. His love for science and the ocean brought him on a wild journey from mangrove swamps, to the National Aquarium in Cuba to the oceanside cliffs of California, eventually leading him to a job at Plant with Purpose. In the episode, he talks about his journey and his work with communities in Latin America and the Caribbean, where science can come alongside the needs of the people and together they can find solutions that allow both people and the environment to flourish.

  • Originally aired on October 28, 2021
  • With 
    Jim Stump

Before You Read

Dear reader,

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Although voices on both sides are loud and extreme, we are breaking through. But as a nonprofit, we rely on the generosity of donors like you to continue this challenging work. Your tax deductible gift today will help us continue to counter the polarizing narratives of today with a message that is informed, hopeful, and faithful.

Transcript

Vergara:

Instead of me saying, “well you’re destroying the coral,” how about if we have a conversation like this one, how about if we listen to each other? How about if I tell you what I’ve discovered, what I’ve seen somewhere else, and you tell me how your life is, and then we together collaborate, to find an alternative to that? The premise and the mandate is to care for creation, all expressions of it. But again, I cannot expect someone to think about that when their stomach is empty, when their children are going hungry at night.

So my name is Milmer Martinez Vergara. And my title is Regional Director for Latin American and the Caribbean at Plant With Purpose.

Stump:

Welcome to Language of God. I’m Jim Stump.

Milmer Martinez Vergara was never the type of person to easily take no for an answer. He followed his interest in science and his love of the ocean from Columbia to Cuba to Miami and eventually to San Diego, relying on providence, and a little luck, and on his own persuasiveness at each step along the way. His grit and determination along with a deep faithfulness to the Gospel of Christ now guides him in his work with local communities in Latin America and the Caribbean. He tells us about the path that led him to this work and then about the work itself, with stories about how local communities are better able to care for the places they live when they are empowered to make decisions and understand that their livelihoods will be better for it. 

I had the rare delight these days of sitting in the same room with Milmer to record this interview. We were at a church in Grand Rapids, MI, streaming talks for the BioLogos Creation Care Summit. You can find a link to some clips and highlights from the summit in the shownotes, including from Milmer’s keynote address. 

But now, let’s get to the conversation. 

Interview Part One

Stump:  

Well, Milmer, welcome to the podcast. We’re grateful to have you here. We’re excited to talk to you about the work you’re doing with Plant with Purpose and how we might be involved. But before that, we want to get to know you a bit. So give us a little autobiography, if you would. Where’d you grow up? What kind of kid were you? How did you get to the place you are now and working with this organization?

Vergara:

I was born and raised in Colombia. I was born, actually, in Bogota in the center of the city. My dad is from Santander and my mom is from Antioquia. It might not mean a lot, but anyone that’s been to Colombia and knows the idiosyncrasies of these regions knows that that would be an interesting mix. 

Stump: 

Why is that? 

Vergara: 

People in Santander are known to be very, very opinionated and very hardworking. People from Antioquia are very entrepreneurial, very, very industrious, so and also— yeah, exactly.

Stump:

So two different worlds coming together. 

Vergara: 

Yes, exactly. 

Stump:

And so which of those do you favor yourself in what you’ve inherited from your parents? 

Vergara:

Yeah, I like to think that I’m both. Yes, I have a little bit of that fire from both. Both cultures have a very interesting energy. And so I like to think that I’m from both.

Stump:

What kind of experiences do you remember from childhood that maybe pointed you toward an interest in science, in care for the creation, some of those kinds of things? 

Vergara:

Yes. Well, I would say that since very early, I’ve always been being affiliated, felt this connection with with the ocean, with nature, so that from the start just completely guided who I was, and like the choices I’ve made, and of course, I would have been a fisherman if I weren’t that curious. But I’m too curious. So I wanted to know more. I wanted to know more. And the other part is that I was always—though I grew up in a very big city, as Bogota, we had, our family had farms in the country. So we had the opportunity to be exposed to, also, the nature, the beautiful nature of Colombia. So Bogota, a big city, but then very close, relatively close to water, you had all these different places, and exposed to the rural reality of Colombia, that is very different to the city reality. So I think those two worlds really marked a lot of who I am and the choices that I’ve made that put me in this spot to today, this job here.

Stump:

So tell us, then, a little more of the story. You’re growing up in this environment, you’re going to school and then to university to study science or tell us some of your educational track

Vergara:

I had a natural inclination to being very curious and I wanted to know, and I didn’t take no for an answer. So people think about thinking outside of the box. I never really saw a box. I simply, I’ve been known since I was little, of doing things in different ways, and I went to a Benedictine monk school in Bogota. It was a bilingual school. So that also— Only guys, only boys in the school. So that also guided a lot of my personality. So I had four sisters. I grew up surrounded by girls at home, had a lot of cousins that were girls, very few boy cousins, but I also had that exposure to that kind of rambunctious life with boys in an all guys school. It was very competitive, very competitive academically, and from a sports perspective was well known. So that guided a lot of that role model, that—  I think I have a very big kind of monastic influence from our teachers. They were all from South Dakota from the United States, an order here in the states and they went as part of their mission to do education. And there, something that really resonated with me is that they were not the kind of Catholics, if I may, that will just tell you what not to do. They simply model the behavior that you wanted. They were great Sportsmen’s, great academics, great men. So that’s something that really molded a lot of who I am. And then when I graduated high school and into the university, I felt that void because that kind of example, that Jesus example that I got from the monks in the school, I suddenly didn’t have it in the university, and I didn’t have it even at a church outside. And the closest thing that I found to that connection was evangelical churches outside of school. And so that also was a big part of that.

Stump:

Was your family Catholic growing up? 

Vergara:

Yes, we’re in Colombia, everyone is basically culturally Catholic. And my dad was very spiritual, but he was also in his process of finding that connection. And what really engaged me was a continuation of that kind of relationship that I had with my teachers in school was that the emphasis of the evangelical church of a personal relationship with God through Jesus. So that really got to me. That part really, really got to me and it became— And it molded a lot of, actually, the work that I’m doing right now. It was a holistic, it was called holistic ministry church, it was called Casa Sobre la Roca. House over the Rock. And it was basically, it was, they did everything, they had an orphanage, they had a theology University. So it was really, they had, they did work all over. So it was not just about the spiritual needs, it was really about the community. So that was something that was very, very aligned to how I thought, to this sense of connection that I had to everything, to people, to the environment. So a lot of that molded. And then when I went to the University, I—  

Stump:

This was in Bogota? 

Vergara:

In Bogota, still Bogota. So I had the option of—so towards the end of my high school, I had already done a pre-med. So this school was a very, very progressive school, we had the opportunity of having one year and a half, two years of elective vocational subjects. So within that I took agronomy, one quarter, I took psychology another quarter, but then I really wanted to get into medicine. So again, that I really wanted to care about people, I had that sense. So I did one quarter, I did very well, so I asked for another quarter. So I ended up doing a semester and then before I knew it, then they let me stay for the next year for the final year of high school to do a full year of medicine, of medicine and vocation. So by the end of that year and a half, I was—the teachers that were all doctors would take me to their hospitals, I would accompany them. So I was really on my route to become a doctor by that moment, at that moment. And of course never leaving the love for the ocean. But towards the end, I really got exposed to the bureaucracy of medicine and it really bummed me out. It really made me think about it in a different way. I love the science of medicine, I love the relationship with people. But the part that really got me out was that bureaucracy. Maybe if I knew about medicine and Doctors Without Borders, I would have done it. But I didn’t know about it at that time. So I went ahead and I started biology and that’s basically what I end up doing at the university.

Stump:

So we’ll get to talking more about the biology you’ve done and the work you’re doing now and in creation care. Before we leave that stage of your life, though, in Colombia, are there any distinctives to the science and faith sort of interaction that you experienced there growing up Catholic and going to the Benedictine school, understanding that perspective and then to the church that you became part of while at the same time being interested in medicine, science? How did those two worlds fit together for you? And I’m wondering, particularly, you live in the United States now and see how some of the interaction between science and faith works that isn’t always very easy, but what was your own experience? And are there any sorts of distinctives of Latin America interaction of science and theology that you might help us understand?

Vergara:

Yes, I think so. I think so. You know, growing up, it was never an issue. For example, the message of taking care of the environment, it was not a faith message, it was not a call to creation care, like is very explicit here. It was very much a part of an everyday life, it was something that was part of your biology class, it was part of your, of any class. So the idea of taking care of creation was just very innate, was an innate part of what we did. I remember, you know, the ideas of planting trees, we had specific TV channels that were about the environment. I remember very, very well, and with fond memories, this program called Profesor Yarumo. Yarumo is a tree. And he was a professor, a guy that looked like a farmer. But he was someone that knew about nature very much and knew the intricacies of being—of science and biology, but also about farming and but also about that rural reality. So that really molded a lot of my perspective of that. It was very, very comprehensive and integrated. And he had people come over from different faiths, so it was never an issue. There was never like a dichotomy between carrying from the environment, between even science and faith. So that was it. It was very—I  mean, so the way was exposed, maybe my own naivety, I didn’t see that. I didn’t see that dichotomy. I didn’t see that tension. But when I came here, it was a whole different thing. And the way how I was exposed for the first time, I was working at Plant With Purpose. I was consulting at the time, 14-15 years ago, and I remember going to Dominican Republic and having a conversation with the local director. And I’m talking about creation care, something that they had told me to talk about. We were working on a curriculum, we’re working on making sure that this is part of our messaging and our partnership with churches. And the director looked at me and he’s like, “I don’t get it. What do you mean I don’t get it.” And I said, “well, what I understand is that—”  So then I got exposed by here that he was—again I want to be careful with what I say—but it was almost like it was almost a dichotomy that I didn’t see that it was not innate to me. Where you as a faith person, as a Christian person, had a dysfunctional relationship with them, with that part of creation, with nature. So the need to create a curriculum for churches and for people to facilitate that mindset, for me, it was very strange. It was difficult for us.

Stump:

So it sounds like there’s a—you encountered a dualism of sorts here, where too many people see science and faith as these separate things and then it becomes the kind of thing where they might fight with each other right? Where you grew up understanding these as much more intimately and intricately entwined with each other and part of each other that you don’t have one without the other.

Vergara:

Exactly, exactly. So for me, that was a situation. So I got to understand, once I started living here more, I started understanding the nuances of that relationship, of that mindset. But it didn’t mean that I agree with it, but I understood where it came from. So suddenly I kind of humanized the issue. Like okay, so this is about something else. And this is about connection. This is about the way you understand what you are a part of, the way how you relate to that natural world, the way how you’re perceived by other people, how you relate to the natural world. So it was definitely very different to what I encountered. Now, that doesn’t mean that there’s no relevance to have a creation curriculum in Dominican Republic or Colombia, where we’re even if there’s not that tension, the fact that there’s a theological basis, and there’s a call to love, to love creation, to love your neighbors through creation, is something that I think is very, very powerful for anyone that has that faith. So I think that it is still very relevant to have these type of conversations or dialogue with people in communities in Christian churches and churches so that we understand to give much more momentum, much more strength to that. Maybe in the past, it was less about they intertwined, but they were, yeah, it was just, it was not that they were intertwined or they were perfectly reconciled. It was more like it was, they were indifferent to each other. It was more like, yeah, it was like they were not even in connection. But so anyway, so that’s why I think there’s still very relevant in the places where we work and in Latin America to be talking about this. I think it just makes it more powerful and more relevant as someone that has a faith.

Stump:

All right, keep your story going. How did you end up after university, getting, eventually getting involved with Plant with Purpose?

Vergara:

Yes. So anyway, so as I said, I entered biology. I applied to marine biology, and I got into all the schools that I wanted to get into. I had, actually there was an opportunity for me to go to University of Miami to do marine biology. But the connection that had come through with the host family—and in Colombia it’s not like your parents kick you out when you’re 18 to go to school, you really stay with your parents until the day you marry. So it was not like my parents were wanting to get rid of me. So when the deal with our host family fell through, then I might, me and my dad, were not very excited about a 17 year old boy, going and living somewhere else without its family. So I stayed in Bogota. I decided to pursue biology but never leaving that contact with the ocean, never leaving that content and that connection. So every project possible from first year to the final year, it was about, it was connected to the ocean. It was that— 

Stump:

Like what? Tell us what your projects were.

Vergara:

For example, we had in the biology, the first course of biology, we had to talk we had to, we had to do a project. So I took a plane and I went to the north of Colombia to an I call on the phone that was to one of the biggest marine Institutes in Colombia as part of the naval force. And by pure chance, I got someone on the phone and I told him the story, as it is what I want to do. And the person’s like, you know what, come here, I’ll connect you with someone. And I got into a plane. A friend of our family had an apartment in the north of Colombia, Santa Marta, and I went ahead and I just showed up. And I called and she’s like, “well, this is what you’re going to do.” I’m like, Okay. “You go to this bus stop and there’s the bus is picking up the employees for the Institute. But don’t say anything.” I’m like, “what do you mean? Don’t say?” “Don’t worry, just get in the bus and don’t say anything.” So I go ahead and I do what she told us. I go on, I get on the bus and everyone looks at me like “who’s this guy,” right? And then suddenly, I’m like, okay, so I just continued and I don’t understand what is that big deal. In order to get to the Institute, you have to go through a military base, and they do a lot of checkups. So they went ahead and they stopped the bus. And the military got inside and they looked at everyone and they looked at me and they say, “where are you going?” It’s like “no, I’m just going to meet—” and I gave him the name of the woman that happened to be the secretary of—  He’s like, “oh okay,” and they let me through. So and everyone looked at each other like how did they let you pass? 

Stump:

Powerful friends you must have. 

Vergara:

Exactly. Yeah, but it was very serendipitous in that sense but also very faithful. I felt that it was. But anyway, so that project, I ended up, this woman ended up connecting me with a researcher in mangrove ecology. And the next day, he was going to collect data in this beautiful mangrove, and he was doing a study about the effects of the roads of the construction, of the roads and the freeway in the mortality of mangrove populations. So I got in the boat the next day and I went to these areas collected data with him. I remember jumping into—it was raining really bad—jumping into this, it was like a swamp with mud up to my waist, and measuring and counting and collecting the leaves and collecting the leaves of organic matter contributed to a specific—  Anyway, collecting information, collecting data. And I remember getting back to the hotel and having in my arm, counting 160 mosquito bites. But anyway, so that’s what I’m saying. What I’m saying is that, though I lived in Bogota, and I could have done a project that was just anything but whatever related to biology was not like a very— I’d made a point of doing something that was close to the ocean. And I ended up doing something really, really cool and really, really interesting. But that’s what I end up doing all the way to my thesis. In Columbia, at that time, the biology degree is five years. And that includes one year of research and a thesis. So it’s very comparable to certain masters.

So what I did was, I said, well, I want to know what I would like to do something more like your biology. And I would like to do something with dolphins. So what I ended up doing is that— Actually that was in 97. So in 97 because I spent a lot of time in the farms, we started getting extorted by the guerrillas by the rebels. So they started calling us to tell me that I was going to be, that they were going to kidnap me, because I was the one that frequented more of this area. So I took that as an opportunity, like, you know what, I’m going to take a break. So I went ahead and I joined a course in Cuba. And the course was in genetic engineering, it was at that time, was 97, and they were already, this institute was already testing vaccines for HIV and things like that. So I went there and I did this course in genetics into genetic engineering and biotechnology. And again, I never left that connection of the ocean, microbiology, genetics, dolphins. And then one of the teachers connected me with the National Aquarium in Cuba. And  then I met someone, and this person was taking care of the dolphins and doing the genetics was explaining to me basically that connection that I didn’t know at that moment what that connection would be, between genetics, marine biology and conservation. So I had kind of like this feeling, but I had no idea. I just know what I liked. I like dolphins. I like genetics. And I like conservation. So this person talked to me about an institute in La Jolla, California, in San Diego that was doing, that was basically the avant garde Institute in the world to be doing this type of research. So she was the one that told me about this place in San Diego. So I took it as, you know what, I’m going to do my thesis there and everyone just looks at me like. “whatever, okay.” And so I went to school, I stayed another six months, finished all my subjects and then I decided I was going to go to San Diego and I stopped in Miami and then I ended up in San Diego. 

And so I ended up talking with this professor at San Diego State, I went on a field collection day for dolphin behavior. And he basically said, “why don’t you do an internship with me?” And I mean, it’s the kind of internship that you have to pay a lot of money to go, is not the kind of thing that you volunteer. So I was like, yeah, let me think about it. The only problems, I have to do my thesis. So he says, “why don’t you do it with me?” So I’m like, okay, so I had to go back to the university in Colombia and tell them, I want to do this degree, I want to do this thesis in the United States with a professor that is not from this university, on something that you guys don’t know about. But I think it would be a great opportunity. So I talked with the president of the Dean of sciences, and I talked to these people and I convinced them that it was okay. So I saw the director, the professor at the University, was the director, I had a German professor from the university of Columbia would be my co-director. And that’s what I mean that I just didn’t take no for an answer. And I ended up doing it. And that was what trampolined me into my life here in San Diego.

Stump:

I’m starting to get the feeling that you can be a very persuasive person, not in a mean or manipulative way. But you’re just able to bring these things about and convince people that what you’re doing is important. That must be an asset and the line of work you’re in now. So still, we’re not yet to plant with purpose, right?

Vergara:

Yes, correct. I’m sorry. So but again, all this is connected. So when I came to San Diego, and I started collecting my data in dolphin behavior, I lived in Crownpoint. Crownpoint is in Mission Bay. And in Mission Bay, I would go up mount Soledad mountain to get to areas where I would start looking at the dolphins for eight hours at a time with binoculars and get ideas of their behaviors. But on the way over, I remember that, I remember telling my dad, “look, I’m this is what I’m doing. It doesn’t cost you anything. This is what I’m doing right now. I’m figuring things out.” And he’s like, make sure you find a church.” He would just say, “make sure you find a church.” And I remember on the way over from Mission Bay to La Jolla, to start my data collection, I would pass in front of a church, the mountain Presbyterian Church, and I remember that I would collect data even on Sundays. So on Sundays, I would start very early in the morning, and I could hear them singing. And I’m like, well, I might as well just stop here. And so while I was collecting the data, I started going to that church. And after a year when I came back, graduated and then came back to do another type of research, then I noticed that Plant with Purpose—at that time floresta, so floresta and Plant with Purpose is the same—and they had a table at the church, they were born from that church. And they had a table where they told the story, the story of Plant with Purpose to people, floresta the people. How can you  take care of creatio, how can you restore the environment and how can you engage in a process of community with people and how those two are not mutually exclusive. So I volunteered with them since 2000. And selling coffee at church, selling the coffee and telling the story of Plant with Purpose. And then in 2007, they opened up a position and I applied and I was accepted. But basically, that’s yeah. So who would have known that there was a straight line all the way from being a kid. And— 

Stump:

That wasn’t a very straight line. [laughs]. It was a very crooked line, I think that got you there. 

Vergara:

Yes, exactly. 

[musical interlude]

BioLogos:

Hi Language of God listeners. We wanted to take a quick break from the episode to tell you about the BioLogos resource centers found at our website, biologos.org. You’ll find articles, videos, and other resources curated for pastors, educators, youth ministry, campus ministry and small groups. Help bring the science and faith conversation to the places that are important to you. Just click the resources tab at the top of the page. Now back to the conversation. 

Interview Part Two

Stump:

But okay, so tell us more about the work of Plant with Purpose, what the organization as a whole does, what its mission is, what it’s hoping to accomplish, and then what your role particularly is with the organization.

Vergara:

Yes. So Plant with Purpose is an international NGO. And I mean, all that information, you can find the website, and it’s better if I read it. But I’ll tell you how I felt it, how I see it. So Plant with Purpose is an international organization, okay. It’s committed to alleviate poverty, but at the same time, to make, in that process, to restore the environment. So that means that we work in the intersection of these two, that means that we work with people that live in environments that are degraded, and that poverty is in some way connected to that environmental degradation. And we understand that in order to do that, there has to be a change in the way how people see themselves, in the way how they relate to the environment, in the way how they relate to themselves, in the way how they relate to God. So that’s the part, that’s why the faith component, the spiritual development component is essential to our model. There’s no real change or transformation if you don’t have clarity over your purpose, over the areas where you live or the community where you live, or the watershed community where you live, or where the ecological community that you live. So that’s what we do. And so the vision that we have is that of a harmonious relationship between the people, the environment, nature, I mean, in the environment and people themselves, or the people and God. So we understand that poverty is not just a matter of not having material, materials and money, it has to do with this dysfunctional relationships that somehow keep us from achieving those objectives. So that’s how I see what we—that is the work that we do. And particularly when I started working with purpose, we were doing reforestation, we were doing sustainable agriculture, and these different things, but it was really the potential that I saw in that, to refine it to have a conservation product and ecological product. So for example, if you want to restore an environment, I actually worked in a lab that did the restoration of the estuary, the Tijuana estuary in San Diego, so I actually spent the day by day planting, designing, making sure that we had the genetic pool, so that the ecosystem in that area would would thrive. So it was a very tailored engineered process to be able to do so. 

So when I came to Plant with Purpose, and they talked about environmental restoration, it was like, incipient. It was a hope, in a way. And I hope they don’t get mad at me for saying it. But I saw that there was a lot that we can do. So for example, one of the concepts that by me being there introduces a concept that is not just about the number of trees, it is about which tree, what species of tree, and where you plant it. And the other component is how you plant it. You can pay someone to plant a tree, or you can work with someone so that they see the value in a tree, it relates to their livelihood, but it also relates to a long term plan of sustainability of ecosystem services. So that’s the nuance. So planting 1 million of non-native trees in an area in which they need a lot of water is not the same thing as using the native trees, the local genetic gene pools and using what would work well in that environment, and finding crops that would work well where those native trees will find a way. So the idea is how do we take that model and make it nuanced enough, so that it would have those ecological changes, because I heard very clear that the livelihood of the farmer, the sustainability of the livelihood of the farmer, depends on the integrity of the ecosystem, longterm. It is not that a healthy ecosystem will help you survive. It is that a healthy ecosystem will let, will make you thrive and flourish. So that was a pretense of how I started working there. And that is a lot of the work that I do. So I not only, as a Director of the Regional  Latin America and Caribbean, working on the nuances of collaborating with the local organizations to increase capacity, to identify opportunities, to optimize processes, so that we can serve better and serve more. But also that component, the ecological component, of me as a team member, is to bring that level of understanding to facilitate the level of understanding, to have the right conversations in the field with our staff, with our teams, and also in the communities, with the community members that are the real, the direct users of biodiversity. 

I mean I experienced this working at the National Marine Fishery Service. I was doing the genetics on dolphins and turtles and porpoises and basically saying look, based on the genetics, based on a molecular ecology, and based on the ecology, we can tell that these are the populations that we need to conserve. So this is what has to be done. And that system works very well, you know, in a country where they have all those structures to enforce that. But a place like Colombia, places like Haiti, like Dominican Republic, that actually coincides, where a lot of the biodiversity corner overlaps, it doesn’t make sense to tell someone to do that. It doesn’t make sense to tell someone, “hey, look, this is the science, so please stop eating that fish, stop doing that.” The most tangible way to achieve the objective is to see the life through the people that live there. So if I go to a coastal community, and people are using gill nets and using dynamite to fish, instead of me saying, “well you’re destroying the coral.” How about if we have a conversation like this one, how about if we listen to each other? How about if I tell you what I’ve discovered, what I’ve seen somewhere else, and you tell me how your life is, and then we, together, collaborate, to find an alternative to that? It’s not because I want those dolphins— I mean, the premise and the mandate is to care for creation, all expressions of it. But again, I cannot expect someone to think about that, when their stomach is empty, when their children are going hungry at night. So yes, I would do things like that, too, if I have to, if I didn’t know of any alternatives. So the idea was through this process is to, at that level with the community members, to level with the people that are there, to facilitate a process where they understand their place in that community, their place in that ecological community, as well as my role. And we collaborate to find alternatives to that. So we can find ways in which, how about instead of using gill nets that are killing your turtles, how about if we use other types of fisheries, we concentrate in that area? This is where science kicks in. It’s like, okay, based on what we’ve done, if we focus there, we can get more of these. How about if we do some responsible agriculture? How about if we do some ecotourism? So the idea is to set those foundations for people to make their own decisions about that. But my premise, my hope, and what I’ve seen happen, is that once people understand where they fit, then their role changes, then their behavior changes. And again, and then you can start working on the new ones so that you can have those results.

Stump:

I want to ask you a little bit about conservation, creation care, from the perspective of your work in some of these developing countries. And let me frame it a little bit this way it: it feels, to me, as though there are more and more of us in America who are becoming aware of the climate change difficulties, but it’s usually through the big spectacular examples of forest fires out west or hurricanes or, you know, major storms that are much different, instead of the basic sort of elements of life that we’re fairly protected from in this area. That’s not the same in many of these communities that you see. And there’s this really—interesting isn’t the right word—but unfortunate tension that you just mentioned a little bit that I’d like to hear you speak to, where we in the majority world have been primarily responsible for driving the kinds of climate changes that are affecting other places, through the technologies that we’ve developed and through the burning of fossil fuels, which has given us this different standard of living in the West, in the majority world. You’re telling the story here of fishermen that maybe have started using dynamite, or gill nets, just to feed their families. But we now are saying, “you need to stop doing that, you need to stop using these newer technologies because it’s degrading the world.” I mean, isn’t there some hypocrisy on our part of saying, you can’t develop in the same way that we developed? Because now we realized it’s really bad for the planet, right? How does that look from the perspective of these communities that you’re part of so much? And what’s the right way to respond to that?

Vergara:

Yes, it is true. I’ve talked with people and not directly related to Plant with Purpose, but other people that live in rural areas and they’re a little bit more aware of what happens in the world. And they have told me about this, how they feel this hypocrisy. Yes, it is, yes it’s true. Within the work that we do, and when you think about this, I mean, you have your problems in front of you. So you have less time to think about it from that perspective. So for me, I can talk to— So let me let me start from the second part of the question, how do I, how can I engage people here to in that conversation. So I avoid looking in the past in general. Meaning, I like to engage in a conversation that is thinking about solutions, solutions to a problem are by definition, are future oriented. So one of the most effective things that we do is to show people what is happening, to show so that we’ll make these connections themselves, ideally would be for you to visit these areas, ideally would be for you to meet these people, for them to tell you face to face what it is. So in a way, we’re trying to replicate that interaction by talking with the people in the communities, in their places where we work so that they themselves can tell their story from that perspective. The other element is the element of educating yourself or learning more. And it’s really an exercise of humility, when you put yourself in a situation where you know that you don’t know everything, where you know that there’s other things that are there that you don’t know about, and you may never know about. So I think that that is a good posture, a good posture to start having those conversations ourselves too, but also with people that are curious about it, or that are wandering. So the idea that you kind of empty yourself from any person, any perspective, and you open yourself to understanding, to talking to someone. As people we can relate to people, no matter what race we are, no matter. I’ve never had a—  I mean, I’ve never encountered people that I cannot just have a conversation over something to drink, it could be tea, it can be coffee, and that that in itself is very powerful. So it’s all in a way, I think that all these issues that are very tangible, that are very dramatic, and are outrageous in some cases, we need to find a way to humanize them, so that people leave their prejudice aside, don’t see them for affiliated to a certain mindset or certain group. And we can have conversation about that, for example, when people come to me, kind of with an expectation of defensive or combative attitude about climate. For me what I go, I go to what I see in the communities. Well, regardless of how we define it, regardless of what we think it is, or what you think it is based on what you read, people for the last 12,15 years in Dominican Republic and Haiti and the Caribbean, that I know, and Colombia in some places, have been changing their crops, because the rains are less consistent. There’s a period from before that there was a consistent of, a regularity and a rhythm that was kept. But 12, 15 years—this is their words, because I don’t know, I don’t know what they talked about in climate change—but their word is that we have had to adapt our crops, our habits to the way how the rains arrive. So for me, regardless of climate change, or how you see it from up here, separated in a bubble, or related to the fires in California, or wherever, people’s livelihoods are directly affected by the change of weather patterns. So however you define climate change, for me, that’s what I see. That is very tangible. And again, that’s without even categorizing anything, that’s what people are doing. In the places where we are right now in Mexico and in Haiti and Dominican Republic, we are struggling to keep up. It rains too much, it rains too little, it doesn’t rain where it’s supposed to, and here we are, our livelihood depends on this, depends on planting trees and planting crops and doing this. So normally, we have had to find ways to adapt to these by looking at crops, at different crops that where working that way,. But we have tried to find ways in which we as a team can, and other people in communities can, react to things happening in two seconds. So again, it’s very—as someone that is working in the field a lot and that doesn’t have a lot of these conversations or for example, coming to give the presentations, I just humanize, I just level the problem to what people are dealing with. You’re a person, he’s a person, she’s a person. Let me tell you what they are going through. Let me, right? And open yourself to learning to doing research, to read, to, I don’t know. To see. To see.

Stump:

Do you have any success stories about this that you can share with us? Conversations that you’ve had with local communities, ways to change and adapt to the situation? Ways that they have been able to help their communities thrive in a way that they weren’t before because of the work with Plant with Purpose?

Vergara:

Yes. Many examples. And let’s see, let’s pick a country. For example, in Mexico, in Oaxaca, a very dry place where we work. And it’s been, it’s been grueling, the droughts, I mean very, very difficult. So, again, planting trees is very difficult because again, we’re not, we don’t have a drip irrigation system for the trees, right? It’s like you collect the seeds from the trees that are there, you go through this process in the community that they themselves value, and they do the nurseries, and they go ahead and put brigades together to plant the trees. But you cannot plant the trees where they’re going to die if it’s not raining. So one of the things that we’ve—that they’ve proposed as we work together is, instead of—the way how trees are planted in Mexico are based on the community itself getting together and doing it. But that requires a lot of coordination between a lot of different people. So what we ended up doing is just making a change in the way how we are planting trees, who is planting the trees. So instead of having those systems in a community, among different among many people, saving groups or groups or local development development that we that we organize that we put together, are the ones divided the task. So they themselves are able to take a smaller part of an area instead of a bigger area. And they are, they can organize better and they are able to react fast to when the rains come. And they divide the effort over 25 people, 15 people, as opposed to just a few that is the committee for that community. So that’s something that is very, it might not be very biological, but it takes a lot of work for that changing mindset in which the community and leaders need to do that as well. And then now all of us need to do it. So it might sound like simple, but it’s just one of the ways in which we’re making a difference that way, in which we can react fast, we spread the responsibility and the tasks of keeping the trees in their houses ready for when the rains come.

Stump:

And the results have been good?

Vergara:

Yes. I mean, for example, in the last, this year, which we implemented that, is the first year in three years that we are able to meet our goals of planting trees. Because it’s just been very hard. Every time I go I talk to our director, to Lalo, to our Director of Forestry person, he’s alway feels like he owes me something. And he’s like, “I mean, I feel like we owe you, I have this debt for three years.” So he takes it very personally, right. But now this is the first year from the last four, in which we surpassed the goals and it was a changing strategy that took problem solving with the community. They proposed this, and now it’s what’s working and, yeah, and it seems, and we’re gonna keep doing it that way.

Stump:

So you’re here in Grand Rapids to talk for the BioLogos conference. So when this podcast episode comes out, you will have already spoken to the group here, can you give us just a little hint of what is the message what are you going to say to all of these North American Christians that are listening to this, about the importance of your work and maybe what we can be doing, how we can be involved? 

Vergara:

Yes, I alluded to it a little bit just before, but much more than me telling someone, I like to—actually one of the things that is difficult about these venues is that we’re doing everything in front of a camera and it’s so hard to me, because I can relate to people. So basically I will talk a little bit about how I got to a situation where I became aware of an invisible community. So I’m calling the talk, our invisible community. And it’s the idea that we are much more connected than we think, to the people around us, to the environment around us, and how I became aware of that. But I think that the big message of the story is that a simple dialogue, a simple extension of your empathy to understand your problem, to understand what you’re going through, might put us in a circumstance of understanding and possible collaboration. And that exercise, of me knowing, of you telling me and through that process, trying to make your problems my problems and also you make my problems your problems, then we build community. And that community, that is that invisible community that we belong to, also a community where we’re a component of our ecological community. We forget that we are one element of many elements, living and nonliving, that relate to each other from an ecological perspective. And that we—and very often people tend to see humans as not, as adjacent, as users, but not as a part of it. Sometimes you see it in the center, but not necessarily. We’re in the center, because we are an influential species, and we have the responsibility. But we need to understand in that effort of knowing that you belong to that ecological community, it should catalyze you to see yourself in a different perspective, and allow you to play a role to keep that integrity. So I refer to invisible communities as the communities that you can build towards these objectives, by a process of empathy, or the ecological communities that you are part of that are inextricable to your well being as a person. That you can make decisions every day that affect someone 5000 miles away. And the fact that you do it purposely and you have that opportunity to do it that way is an extension of loving others. So you can love other people 5000 miles away, just by the choices you make in your food, by the way how you use your energy. So anyway, so that’s a little bit of what I’m going to be talking about today.

Stump:

How can listeners get more involved with Plant with Purpose if they’re interested?

Vergara:

Yeah, I mean, we love that they become part of our community, meaning there’s many ways of doing it. And, yeah, just I would encourage them to just look at our website, plantwithpurpose.org, our website, and there’s many ways to do it. Just go there or just pick up the phone and give me a call. I encourage people—that I’m happy to do. And I’ve never turned down a phone call from anyone over the last 14 years. I’ve never. So, and anyone like that is in the organization. Any questions you have, just send an email about any of these, we’ll be happy to have a conversation. And the website will point you in ways of doing it. You can do it as a donor, as I call it, as an investor. You can do it as someone that takes time to talk about this. And there’s mission trips. Many ways. There’s, I think that—  Or prayer, just get our prayer letter. And so that way you can get to pray for the people, for our teams in the field, and our collaborators, our partners, our rural partners in the field.

Stump:

Well, I can testify that you’re a fun person to have a conversation with so all our listeners out there might be getting you on the phone here at some point, wanting to talk as well. Thanks so much for sharing the stories, for the work that you’re doing and the importance of it, and for joining with us here at BioLogos this weekend for this event and trying to spread the word that care for God’s creation, in both the scientific and the faithful sense, fit together very well. Your life has been a testimony to that. So thank you so much. Thanks for talking to us on the podcast, Milmer.

Vergara:

Thank you, Jim. And yeah, let me know if I can be of service anytime. 

Credits 

BioLogos:

Language of God is produced by BioLogos. It has been funded in part by the John Templeton Foundation, the Fetzer Institute and by individual donors who contribute to BioLogos. Language of God is produced and mixed by Colin Hoogerwerf. That’s me. Our theme song is by Breakmaster Cylinder. BioLogos offices are located in Grand Rapids, Michigan in the Grand River watershed. If you have questions or want to join in a conversation about this episode find a link in the show notes for the BioLogos forum or visit our website, biologos.org, where you will find articles, videos and other resources on faith and science. Thanks for listening. 


Featured guest

milmer martinez vergara

Milmer Martinez Vergara

Milmer Martinez Vergara is the Regional Director for Latin America and the Caribbean with Plant with Purpose. He works with local communities to restore and protect natural ecosystems and consequently create resilient rural communities. He was born and raised in Colombia and earned an undergraduate degree in biology and a graduate degree in Dolphin Behavior and Molecular Ecology. He lives with his wife and children by the sea in San Diego, California.


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